San Francisco Museum of Modern Art | February 6 – May 2, 2010
Luc Tuymans (b. 1958) is best known for his captivatingly blurry, washed-out, and bleached representational paintings with latent yet powerfully evocative conceptual agendas. His traveling retrospective, which I saw at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, its second destination, is an ambitious exhibition that asks crucial questions across the development of Tuymans’s oeuvre: Where do formal and conceptual shifts occur in his career and how does one affect the other? As the paintings become more refined, do their palettes become further restricted? Do their atmospheric qualities loosen or tighten? What happens to the thematic concepts, which Tuymans has skillfully researched and written extensively about, in each body of work?
His paintings embrace a number of formal and conceptual oppositions, echoed in Tuymans’s own explanation that “sickness should appear in the way the painting is made,” yet in “caressing the painting” there is also pleasure in its making. A sick pleasure, painting is for him, exemplified best in a work like the infamous “Gaskamer (Gas Chamber)” (1986). These statements are characteristic of Tuymans’s self-conscious and tenaciously semantic shaping of the philosophical content in his work. And when he says that his painting process is “minutely conceptualized,” I wonder if the posturing of his persona and the positioning of his career are attended to with the same care. Tuymans’s individualistic brand of painting has been commonly described as provocative yet deadpan, clinical but also shocking. He speaks about the violence of the imagery in his paintings, but I often see a delicate sense of touch and quiet palette that has more in common with Giorgio Morandi than, say, Chaim Soutine.
However, if Tuymans’s paintings are violent, then the violence is perpetrated against the recognizability of the smartly culled photographic images to which his paintings refer. His selection of imagery, which often requires wall text and titles to properly identify (a Holocaust gas chamber, portraits of Condoleezza Rice, Albert Speer, and Mwana Kitoko), makes him a provocateur, but it also includes the benign and banal of the everyday (rabbits, floral patterns, pillows, table still lifes). Regardless of subject, though, Tuymans’s images are at a distance due to the nature of the photograph, yet they are warmly painted with a clumsy, individualistic touch. This psychological detachment is also at odds with the painting’s sensualist delivery.
Entering from the blinding light of SFMOMA’s central atrium to the relatively dim exhibition space, one’s eyes are forced to readjust while taking in the artist’s early work. This Tuymans-like conceptual imbrication recalls an early statement about the perceptual experience of his paintings: “Consider the experience of moving from a dark space into one that is brightly lit, or vice versa. While our eyes adjust to the new conditions, we are thrown into temporary blindness. The sensation may last only a few short moments, but the experience is disorienting and can be unsettling in unfamiliar surroundings. What are we looking at? What’s over there?” In this sense, to view Tuymans’s paintings across his career is to examine the degree to which the images are divorced from their pictorial reality—a reality that, originating in the lens of the camera and translated through painting, almost disappears before our eyes.
Highlighting Tuymans’s early development, the SFMOMA retrospective, like the Wexner Center for the Arts’s installation, attempts without success to re-create the four major exhibitions of his career with four installations of interrelated paintings. While focusing on this chronological arrangement may privilege thematic groups, it creates a formal homogeneity, even when a relatively bright blue or green may take you by surprise. In addition, this approach unevenly traces the drastic shift towards the grander scale of his more recent paintings. While I’m less familiar with his earlier work, to see the way selections from his two most recent New York exhibitions—Proper (2005) and Forever: The Management of Magic (2008)—bleed together at the end of the exhibition clearly demonstrate how much the installation defeats any thematic elucidations. This approach also disservices the original exhibitions, drawing arbitrary lines around what constitutes an optimum experience with the works. Having seen these exhibitions in the gallery spaces of David Zwirner’s complex, I couldn’t avoid feeling that the works are not given enough horizontal spacing to adequately breathe, while paradoxically the easel-sized paintings in particular seem swallowed by SFMOMA’s high ceilings.
At the Wexner, excerpts of Tuymans’s early films were shown on a video monitor and sequestered in a side gallery (a situation that made the films, as described by critic Jordan Kantor, “an excursus… in the artist’s career”), while here this collection of cinematic fragments is screened only twice a day in the visitor education center (during my first visit, I totally missed this component, having been told by several museum guards that there was no video).
This is unfortunate either way, because Tuymans’s films provide a missing link to the differences between his disparate early work and more unified later style. If the exhibition is devoted to “the early genesis of the artist’s distinctive process,” it has missed an opportunity to invest more effort in exploring what qualities connect the film and the painting. Although many fragments are black-and-white, some are in color, which look strikingly like his paintings in motion. Tuymans’s films capture an appealing kind of painterly sloppiness through solarization, dust, intentional adjustments in and out of focus, and lo-fi graininess. Like his paintings, they are seductively washed-out and bleached, weathered and worn.
Film allows Tuymans more freedom and exploration in composition, cropping images with a painter’s acute awareness of positive and negative space. Capturing television screens and the Belgian waterfront, panning over photographs and books, the films evoke the experience of sculpture in real time while dissociating the imagery in a way very similar to the paintings.
Both film and painting for Tuymans involve imbrications of translation which creates both formal and conceptual distance. His one-time foray into cinema suggests possible new directions and asks further questions: Why not integrate film more visibly into his painting practice? And if not, does that leave Tuymans’s painting too stubbornly narrow, limiting, or anachronistic, despite the often caustically provocative and political subject matter? Luc Tuymans, now 51, with any luck has 30 more years of painting ahead of him. As he takes on new historical and political subjects, his work will hopefully develop new formal strategies, and not, like that of many successful artists at mid-career, slip into signature designs and out of critical discourse.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.